Fears grow over Jerusalem unrest
Source: Financial Times
With the world’s attention focused on the war in the Gaza Strip, another front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quietly heating up in Jerusalem, one of the few places where Israelis and Palestinians – elsewhere divided by walls or fences — mingle and meet.
Since the killing last month of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager, by Jewish extremists, the city has seen protests and rioting nearly every night — usually clashes between Arab youths and Israeli police or soldiers. It has accelerated this week, when more than 100 young Palestinians were arrested over two nights.
In scenes reminiscent of the two Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, against Israeli occupation, boys have wrapped their faces in keffiyeh headscarves to evade cameras and thrown rocks, firecrackers and petrol bombs at police or settlers in the city’s mostly Arab east.
Police have responded with force, spraying protesters with “skunk liquid” — which smells like sewage — or sending officers, sometimes wearing masks, to arrest suspects in the dead of night in tactics campaigners liken to those used to quash unrest in the occupied West Bank.
The violence has passed largely unnoticed in Israel because it is confined to East Jerusalem neighbourhoods such as the Mount of Olives, Issawiya and Silwan, where few Israelis other than settlers or law enforcement officials go.
However, some Palestinians and Israelis, and foreign diplomats, are voicing concern that the violence could ignite and spread beyond Jerusalem.
“I’m very concerned by the fact that due to the bombs in Gaza, nobody really noticed that the third intifada is going to start in Jerusalem,” says Meir Margalit, a leftist former member of Jerusalem’s city council. “We are very close to this point, and nobody is really paying attention to what is going on here.”
Images of dead Palestinians and wrecked buildings, including mosques, in Gaza, broadcast in blanket coverage on Arab news channels, have further inflamed emotions in Jerusalem. So too have recent indications that Israel might be poised to allow Jewish prayer at the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, changing a status quo that has been in place since Israel occupied the eastern half of the city in 1967.
Palestinians say the riots in Jerusalem attest to years of economic deprivation among young Arabs, discriminatory and heavy-handed policing and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the east, including in the heart of the city’s Muslim quarter, a few paces from al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.
“If you go around and look at these youngsters who participate in the clashes, each one of them has a story of being stopped, humiliated, even beaten by the Israeli soldiers,” says Ali Mohammed Jiddah, an older Palestinian activist. “Taking part in the clashes allows them to take out the accumulation of frustration and anger.”
Abu Khdeir’s murder brought this simmering anger to a head. Residents of Shuafat, the neighbourhood where he lived, had warned Israeli police two days before his body was found that settlers had unsuccessfully tried to snatch a younger boy from his mother as revenge for the earlier killing in the West Bank of three Jewish seminary students.
They say the police did not respond. When Mr Abu Khdeir’s burnt body was found, rioting broke out in the neighbourhood. A station of the Jerusalem light rail – meant to be a symbol of unity in a city Israel’s government calls its “eternal, unified capital” – was destroyed in the melee.
“The majority of the guys here don’t have good jobs – they work either as cleaners or waiters on the Israeli side,” Hussam Abed, a Palestinian activist who lives in Shuafat, says of the protesters. “When the settlers kidnapped and killed Abu Khdeir, it was like a balloon exploded.”
Police have detained more than 600 Palestinians since Abu Khdeir was killed, arresting more than 50 overnight on Tuesday and Wednesday alone. “We have stepped up police operations over the past 48 hours,” Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, confirmed on Thursday.
When asked about Israel’s use of masked police officers – who human rights groups accuse of beating suspects – Mr Rosenfeld said that the Israeli police “have a wide range of units that carry out a wide range of operations; if necessary they work undercover as well, in order not to disclose their identity”.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians speculate that the round-up of rioters may be a pre-emptive measure ahead of a change in the status quo at al-Aqsa. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, told foreign journalists last week that Israel “respects and will continue to respect the status quo on the Temple Mount”, under which the Jordanian king is the guardian of Jerusalem’s holy sites.
However, the Israeli leader has not made a similar statement in Hebrew, and some ruling politicians in his rightwing coalition are urging that Jewish prayer be allowed on the site, as it is at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, which has been a flashpoint for unrest. Moshe Feiglin, a far-right member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud, this week proposed that a 100m buffer zone be put between Jews and Muslims and the site.
Concerned Jerusalemites say such proposals will result in a “Hebronisation” of Jerusalem, with unpredictable consequences.
“Jerusalem is much more stable than its reputation, but it’s only a matter of weeks or months before there will be a non-routine act of violence around the Temple Mount,” says Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer specialising in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem. “It’s in the cards, given the trajectory of events